Review: M. Butterfly

I’ve been told that this play revisal is much cooler and more cerebral than the original 1988 Broadway production, and you know what, I’m totally okay with that. Playwright David Henry Hwang is dealing with some very complex issues in M. Butterfly, and I’m more interested in exploring those with him than getting caught up in his hapless leading character’s emotional journey.

M. Butterfly, inspired by historical events, follows married French diplomat Rene Gallimard (Clive Owens) as he falls in love with jīngjù (aka “Beijing opera”) performer Song Liling (Jin Ha). Hwang has substantially revised his script, so that we learn that Song Liling is actually a man much earlier in the game. That narrative tension removed, it is much easier to follow the complicated turns that the forward rush of history forces on Gallimard and Liling’s relationship.

Director Julie Taymor, known for her use of spectacle to tell stories, here puts a greater emphasis on acting, to very good effect, underlining how much politics is very, very personal. As a matter of fact, when she uses spectacle in this production, she falters. The set is made up of moving panels – put simply, there are too many of them and they are too automated. Their lack of smooth functioning ends up being a major distraction. The spectacle that does work as it should is choreographer Ma Cong’s marvelous evocations of jīngjù and yàngbǎnxì (Maoist Revolutionary Operas).

The most outstanding thing in the production is Jin Ha’s performance as Song. He is every bit the character conjured by Hwang’s revisions, all steel and chrome under the velvet and lace, and all longing and confusion even further down. Clive Owens is such a fine actor that you lose sight of his matinee idol looks and really invest in him as the socially awkward Gallimard. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Advertisements

CD Review Roundup

Jessica Molaskey – Portraits of Joni

When I popped this CD in my computer to import it to iTunes, it offered the genre “Pop.” Well, Joni Mitchell, the object of tribute on Portraits of Joni, aimed at making pop music for exactly one album, her much-loved Court and Spark. Otherwise, her musical polestars were always folk and jazz. And here, Jessica Molaskey takes Joni’s jazziest impulses and turns them way up. Molaskey has been performing with her husband guitarist John Pizzarelli for a very long time, and has become in the process an integral part of the jazz “royal family” that is the Pizzarellis. No, iTunes, this is definitely “Jazz!” And first-class jazz at that, with perhaps the most remarkable moment being a mashup of Mitchell’s earliest song masterpiece “Circle Game” with John singing snippets of Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Waters of March.” Highly recommended.

To purchase, click here.

War Paint (Original Broadway Cast Recording)

Some of Broadway’s most solid craftsmen worked on War Paint, and it shows – it’s pretty darn good. War Paint follows the rivalry of cosmetics pioneers Elizabeth Arden (Christine Ebersole) and Helena Rubinstein (Patti LuPone), who between them defined beauty standards for much of the 20th Century. The score by composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie evokes all kinds of music from the 1930s through the 1960s, with generous doses of big band-style swing. Of course, the main draw is hearing not one but two living legends in the lead roles. The songs for Ebersole and LuPone go beyond intelligently painting the personalities of the two main characters – they are exquisitely tailored for their talents. This is nowhere more apparent than in their twin 11 O’Clock numbers. When Christine finishes her song “Pink” – as pure Ebersole as anything Frankel and Korie gave her in Grey Gardens – it’s hard to imagine they could top it. And they don’t, exactly – Patti’s “Forever Beautiful” is more of a lateral move, just as astonishing a number, and ideal for LuPone. Recommended.

To purchase, click here.

Holiday Inn (Original Broadway Cast Recording)

This stage adaptation of the classic movie combines Irving Berlin songs with heart and smarts, and that makes me happy. The book of this version had some annoying minor plot holes, but you don’t get that on the cast recording, which is pure Berlin bliss. Big dance number “Shaking The Blues Away” was a highlight in the production, and the recording successfully captures the arrangement’s bristling high energy. A musical glow emanates from the warm chemistry between leads Bryce Pinkham and Lora Lee Gayer. Corbin Bleu adds great energy in a supporting role. As reimagined properties by Great American Songbook writers go, this one’s above average, and even more fun on disc than it was on the stage. Recommended.

To purchase, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Time and the Conways

This sturdy, smart play from 1937 is equal parts philosophical rumination on the “time” part of the title, and rigorously observed family drama about “the Conways.” In 1919, at the 21st birthday party for Kay Conway (Charlotte Parry), the titular upper-middle class British family see a sunny future ahead – I mean, the worst war in human history had just ended, how could it ever get as bad as that again? Then we jump to 1937, in what is either the actual future, or Kay’s dark premonition, or both.

In addition to its philosophical and “family psychology” themes, J. B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways is rich with political thoughts that range from the most idealistic socialism to the most mercenary capitalism, which speaks loudly to the anxieties of 2017 America. Director Rebbeca Taichman, fresh off her Tony win for Indecent, is an ideal match for this thoughtful material. Just as with Indecent, she creates several coups de théâtre that express Priestley’s ideas in breathtakingly simple theatrical moments.

The star in this production is Elizabeth McGovern, much loved as Downton Abbey‘s Lady Gratham, Cora Crawley. Here she plays family matriarch Mrs. Conway, a “monster mother” type familiar in American dramas from such characters as Tennessee Williams’s Amanda Wingfield or O’Neill’s Mary Tyrone – well-intentioned perhaps, but blinded by self-interest to the ways she damages her children. McGovern plays the positives here, going full-force into Mrs. Conway’s often unwarranted optimism to heartbreaking effect.

But as with the Williams and O’Neill characters referenced above, Mrs. Conway is not the central character of Time and the Conways. Though the play is in many ways an ensemble show, Kay is the character who holds the story together. Parry does a marvelous job with this sensitive, troubled yet hardy soul. The outstanding performance, though, is Gabriel Ebert as the quietly thoughtful and stoically content Alan. Quiet as Alan is, it’s clear when he does speak that much more is going on inside his head than those of the rest of the family combined. Ebert reflects every nuance, and gives a performance that shines from inside. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Rita Wilson

This lady is right in the middle of a sound that has run through the blood of Los Angeles since two midwestern boys – Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark – met while gigging in L. A. in 1964, and formed the group Jet Set, later to become the Byrds when they added native Los Angeleans David Crosby and Chris Hillman. The Eagles perfected the sound in the the 1970s, and it has continued to be hugely influential. A native Los Angelean herself, Rita Wilson most resembles – in both her singing and her songwriting – Sheryl Crow, a singer / songwriter heavily influenced by the Eagles.

In the evening’s first song, from her self-titled first album, is “Along for the Ride” Wilson invites the the audience to “Roll the windows down / Come along for the ride.” Wilson is a fine, powerful singer in the folk and country inflected L. A. Tradition, and her band are highly polished professionals.

A handful of songs come from her self-titled 2015 album, but the bulk of the evening are new songs that presumably will be on her new album, forthcoming in the new year. The most memorable ones are ode to jealousy “New Girl,” the mildy trashy dive bar anthem “Pay Me in Wine,” and the attitude-serving “You’re Not the Boss of Me.” All point to increasing songwriting strength from this long-time actor, just recently turned singer /songwriter. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Lee Roy Reams

He’s the archetypal gay chorus boy made good. In 1970, Lee Roy Reams played arguably the first openly gay character with lines in a Broadway musical (Margo Channing’s hairdresser Duane in Applause!), and in 1980 he got one of the biggest breaks of his career, originating the role of Billy Lawlor in the Tony Award-winning musical 42nd Street. Just like the eternal gypsy queen he is, he has all the good dish on that show, and knows just how to spill it.

While Reams may have some choice words for certain people, there is not a single drop of malice in his storytelling. He tells the whole truth, but he tells it entertainingly and with an underlying warmth. He may admit he doesn’t know to this day whether Tammy Grimes is a good actress, but he also admits she has some kind of fascinating “star quality” and once he let her know he knew where to get laughs (but was willing to share the laugh) they became fast friends. His harshest words are for producer David Merrick, but even those are mixed with an admiration with Merrick’s unparalled ability to get the show up and get the tickets selling.

Reams intersperses the backstage human comedy (and drama and tragedy) with his own take on a hefty chunk of the show’s score. All of the interpretations are a pleasure to hear, but things lift an extra amount when he takes on the songs he personally sang in the show; it’s like some kind of muscle memory kicks in, and Lee Roy gets an extra BOOM to his sound. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Trixie Mattel

Drag Race fan favorite Trixie Mattel is out to prove her versatility with this new show, entitled Now with Moving Parts! The majority of the show sticks to her main talent: stand-up filled to the gunnels with comedy that’s either perverse or dark. She clearly has a natural aptitude for the form, and she’s been paying attention to how the best stand-up acts have been built for some time now – circling in from a highly topical and satirical beginning to a very personal and more thematically serious ending. Trixie’s also very gifted at meta-comedy, getting a secondary laugh when she reads the room’s reaction – or freely admitting she loves a certain bit so she’s keeping it, audience reaction be damned!

However, there is an extended, virtuoso lip-synch about “good christian bitches” that stitches together fragments of songs and movie dialogue in a manner that owes a lot to the legendary Lypsinka, which ends with a costume reveal that owes a lot to Lady Bunny. This girl pays homage to tradition, but also makes these moments uniquely Trixie.

Mattel also injects more music into her show this time – generally folksy comedy songs that prove “just how fucking white I am” – that include a hilarious acoustic take on a RuPaul dance track, some impressive live-sampled duets with herself, and as some autoharp fun for the finale. It’s all good clean dirty fun, and definitely recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Dianna Agron

This ain’t Quinn Fabray at the Carlyle, kids. You can tell a lot about the actual person and artistry of one-time Glee star Dianna Agron from her recent marriage to folk rock band Mumford & Sons’ banjoist and guitarist Winston Marshall. This is a beautiful young woman with a gorgeous voice who is nowhere more comfortable than when she’s singing a cover of a 1960s folk rock chestnut.

With this act she’s making her first entry into the world of New York cabaret, starting at the very top. Understandably nervous on her opening night, which showed in her hesitant patter, she calmed right down when it came time to sing. No song was less than beautifully sung, but she was at her best when a song brought out the actress in her – most notably in “Bang Bang” a hit for Cher and then Nancy Sinatra, and “Play with Fire,” one of The Rolling Stones’ earlier bad boy songs to push their image toward the demonic.

There’s an enormous amount of potential here – I would give a lot to hear Agron’s liquid gold voice act the hell out of some of Marianne Faithfull’s darker material. But she needs very much to bring more of her considerable acting chops into her song interpretation. There were glimmers of that in this cabaret act, and they were tantalizingly excellent. The job in cabaret, as much as in theatre and film, is storytelling, and Agron needs to do more of that. I have full confidence that she is more than capable. (One techincal note: the show was overamplified for the tres intimate Cafe Carlyle. It could even be truly “unplugged,” totally unamplified).

Because really, I think if she comes in firing on all cylinders she could do truly legendary things in cabaret. Sing all of Faithfull’s Broken English, maybe? Or how about a whole Dylan album? You could call the show Blonde on Blonde on Blonde! In any event, Agron is already giving us enough wonderfully sung renditions of dauntingly complex songs that I can heartily recommend her act as it stands today.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.